SAM SMITH – The memorial service for Gene McCarthy ran a bit long, considering it was a tribute to a man who had once suggested reducing the number of commandments from ten to four. And it was disturbing to see Bill Clinton shamelessly delivering a tribute to a man of integrity, especially one who had once suggested, as a reform, that “we fire all the Rhodes and Oxford scholars and everyone from Arkansas.” But then there was also Peter Yarow singing and the moving memorials and the brass section of the National Symphony and, most of all, the guy sitting next to me in the National Cathedral pew.
With pleasant earnestness he had turned to me before the service and asked, “Tell me, what did he do? He ran for president, didn’t he? And was he a senator?”
I was stunned, wondering what had led him to enter the cathedral in the first place, but straight forwardly described McCarthy’s experience in 1968.
The man was interested and noted, “I wasn’t here then but I just liked the way he stood up for the truth.”
A light clicked. “You were in Vietnam,” I said.
“Right. It really screwed you up. Every day you thought you were going to die. I’m still screwed up.”
During the service, my neighbor made copious notes and took photos with his camera.
At the end of the service, I shook hands and said I had been glad to meet him, adding, “Was it worthwhile?”
He smiled. “It was unforgettable. I feel alive again.”